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C Suites Urged to Reexamine Company Culture to Foster Inclusion

Telecom, media and technology companies eager to respond to the Black Lives Matter protests should do more than release statements, experts told us this and last week: Companies should reflect on their own cultures to ensure hiring, retention and promotion practices align with values they espouse.

I’m happy companies are responding to this moment,” said Maurita Coley, CEO of the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council. “I hope it goes beyond sending money to paying more attention to what their company looks like and making sure their workforces are diverse and their employees’ interests really matter.” She said younger generations seek companies that share their values. “If things have to shift because the next generation has the skills to move the economy forward, smart corporations have to pay attention,” she said.

BLM statements can come across as tone-deaf, said Sanford Williams, FCC Office of Communications Business Opportunities director. He blogged on the need for equity and inclusion (see 2006090043). To address workforce diversity, “acknowledge it’s an issue,” he said in an interview: Then "organize a plan. If the top doesn’t buy in, it’s not really successful.” Williams said it isn’t just about percentages of people of color on a staff but including people’s ideas. “You have to be intentional,” he said. “It’s not going to happen organically. And have a metric to measure it.” Poll employees, he advised, “and ask your customers, too.” He said to evaluate a company from the outside, “look at the C suites.” Look at advertising, too, he said.

In recent days, the likes of the Internet Association, AT&T and other communications industry stakeholders issued statements in support of BLM (see 2006170043).

The Walter Kaitz Foundation didn't have to nudge media companies to respond to the BLM movement, said Executive Director Michelle Ray. "Their commitment to this is deep," Ray said. "They're not throwing pennies at this."

Beyond Statistics

Organizational diversity is about more than numbers, experts agree. They said it's not quick work, either.

Brookings Institution Center for Technology Innovation Senior Fellow Nicol Turner-Lee predicted "a greater push into changing the culture." She wants more training on bias, fairness and equity. “This inflection point will reveal which companies are only about surface requirements” and which want to do the hard work, she said.

"Deliberate and sustained effort" is needed, said National Association for Multi-ethnicity in Communications CEO Shuanise Washington. She recommends tying executive compensation to diversity metrics. “Diversity is a business goal,” she said. “It should transcend all areas.”

The Hispanic Technology & Telecommunications Partnership sees incremental increases in Latino hiring, but turnover outpaces hiring, said Executive Director Alejandro Roark. “It’s a culture problem,” he said. “It’s not just hiring but building an inclusive workforce.” He said companies shouldn’t leave it to minority communities to do the unpaid labor of shifting workplace culture. “We’d like to see a person in house responsible for company culture,” and ensure there's the needed funding and discretion, he said: Hire a chief diversity officer. Companies should think more on why turnover is high among people of color, Roark said.

Improving diversity and inclusion is “doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing as a fiduciary,” said Women in Cable Telecommunications CEO Maria Brennan. She said organizations with diversity “innovate more quickly than teams that are homogenous. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s also a business differentiator. Employees stay longer.”

Best Practices

Stats can quantify the problem experts identify. NAMIC's survey of cable and media companies in 2019 shows higher hiring rates for persons of color but lower retention.

HTTP data on the tech industry since 2014 shows workforce diversity numbers "have flatlined,” Roark said. “When a company year after year reports the same numbers, there’s no accountability. There’s not a well-integrated strategy.” He said tech companies are data-driven but aren’t hitting their own goals here. Industry "continues to take steps to develop a more diverse and inclusive workforce," wrote Computer and Communications Industry Association President Matt Schruers.

Brennan recommended industry internship programs to recruit college students. Outside organizations offer employee leadership programs and scorecards. “We like to see companies have written pay equity policies,” Brennan said. “That will attract people who are known to otherwise be paid less.”

Telecom and cable companies tend to be “pretty advanced” on diversity and inclusion, Coley said. “They’re older and subject to regulation and compliance” not just at the federal level but also through local covenants and franchises, she said. Telecom companies have been working with HTTP to make sure there’s Latino representation at all levels of leadership, said Roark. “We’re pushing them in media representation.”

The telecom industry is "in the business of creating opportunity, connecting communities everywhere and bringing humanity together," said USTelecom CEO Jonathan Spalter in a written statement. "This includes a commitment to diversity and inclusion at all levels. Our member companies share these values, live these values and are working to build a more just and inclusive America.”

"The work we do is not of the moment," said Kaitz's Ray. "It’s something we’ve done for 40 years." The foundation shares a board with NCTA, which gives the foundation "more teeth" thanks to support from the highest levels of the cable industry, she said. Kaitz funds internships and metrics-driven diversity surveys with scorecards so companies can do better, Ray said: "We want to get to a place of equity where everybody has a seat at the table." An NCTA spokesman, who referred us to Kaitz, told us NCTA CEO Michael Powell remains vocal on racial justice issues and is vice chair of the nonprofit America's Promise Alliance.

Roark wants companies that sponsor educational programs for elementary and middle schools to redirect energy to recruiting recent college graduates of color. Having few coders and engineers of color hurts development of facial recognition technologies because companies don’t have teams that “understand the impact to people of color,” he said. “At some point, it moves from a blind spot to a form of negligence.”

This is a powerful time we’re living through,” said Williams. “People are talking now. I’m optimistic.”

When this many people agree on something, you have to be hopeful,” Coley said.

Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series of articles about diversity and the communications sector.